Written by : Transcript – Why More Money Doesn’t Equal More Happiness With Tal Ben-Shahar 

Transcript – Why More Money Doesn’t Equal More Happiness With Tal Ben-Shahar

Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Why More Money Doesn’t Equal More Happiness With Tal Ben-Shahar




[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 432 of Live Happy Now. We’ve heard that money can’t buy happiness. But how does our perception of money affect our well-being? I’m your host, Paula Felps. This week, I’m talking with author and lecturer, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Co-Founder of the Happiness Studies Academy and creator of the Master’s Degree in Happiness Studies.


Tal is here to talk about recent findings that show our perception of money has changed dramatically, and it’s damaging our happiness. He’s going to break down what this survey tells us and why it’s so important to change our view of money for the sake of our well-being. Let’s have a listen.




[00:00:42] PF: Tal, thank you so much for coming back on Live Happy Now.


[00:00:45] TBS: Thank you, Paula, for having me back.


[00:00:47] PF: This is a really interesting conversation to have because as you know, Bloomberg just released a survey, and it had some really surprising results on people’s perception about money. It really showed how things have changed dramatically. I wondered, to start it off, if you wanted to talk a little bit about what some of those findings were.


[00:01:07] TBS: Sure. So the Bloomberg study very much aligns with what we’ve been studying in the field of happiness studies over the past few decades, which is that people’s perceptions matter a great deal more than their objective circumstances. So what they identified were people who were making a lot of money. They were in the top 10th of the population in terms of income above $175,000. Yet a large minority were feeling poor, and the majority were not feeling comfortable about how much they were making.


Now, most people, probably around 90% of the population would say, “What are they about? They’re spoiled, and they have so much money. They should be, first of all, grateful. Second, happy. But they’re not. They’re neither.” Question is why. In the article, the research tries to give the reason. They say, well, things have changed. Many people living in New York, for them, 175,000 or 200,000 doesn’t go far. At the same time, many of them have homes that are paid off, so they don’t have that mortgage payment. Yet they feel the way they feel.


I think what’s interesting to do, Paula, is for us to explore why. Even more importantly, what can we do about it if we experience dissatisfaction?


[00:02:29] PF: Absolutely. Yes, yes. Because that’s why I wanted to have this conversation with you. I wonder too if what has caused that mindset to change because a few years ago, it was saying, okay, if you have an income over $75,000 that that was what it took to kind of get you into a good state of well-being. Then 2021, a study came out and said, “No, we need more than that.” So now, we’re looking at really dramatically different numbers. What has changed in the way that we’re thinking?


[00:02:59] TBS: It’s a few things. The first thing is COVID. It’s easy to blame COVID for everything, but it really did change the world in so many ways and mostly not good ways. So what did COVID do? It essentially took away people’s sense of confidence in the status quo because suddenly this came completely unannounced, and millions and millions of people lost their jobs. Even more extreme, many people lost their lives. The sense of security was understandably affected.


If before COVID the question was am I making enough money to live well, the question post-COVID for many people is do I have enough money stashed away to survive a year without a job because that happened to many people. Even if it didn’t happen to you, you read about people for whom it did happen. This was real. This changes the numbers because while those who were making $200,000 a year certainly have enough to live off, most of them would not be able to survive, certainly not with the lifestyle that they’re leading if they lost their job and did not have that income for a year. That became a reality.


[00:04:24] PF: Is there also a sense of fear of, in addition to having that money to live on, feeling like we’re no longer being taken care of? I think there was a sense that we would always be okay. Like no matter what happened, someone will take care of us. Something’s going to go well for us. Did we kind of lose that mindset?


[00:04:45] TBS: I think so. So in the sense that when things are predictable. Well, if we’re taken care of in the past, we’ll be taken care of in the future. You just induce the future from the past. But suddenly, everyone was lost. I mean, governments were lost. I mean, we’re still not sure today. Did we do the right thing? Should have we been quarantined or not? There are different models. The jury is still out, and maybe we’ll always be out on it. Yes. Again, people lost their sense of confidence in the authorities, so to speak. Also in their workplaces because even in the most reliable of workplaces, well, they had to lay off people. They didn’t have a choice. They did that.


[00:05:26] PF: So is it healthy to have that I’ve got to take care of myself mindset? Or is it unhealthy because we are supposed to be connected?


[00:05:33] TBS: So it can go either way. COVID was a trauma, a global trauma, societal-wide trauma. The question is do we grow from that trauma, or do we break down from a trauma? In psychological language, do we experience PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder? Or do we experience PTG, post-traumatic growth? Again, the jury’s out on that. Not only is the jury out on that. It’s very much dependent on individual perceptions and individual choices.


Let’s take two examples. One example is of a person who – again, let’s use the numbers in the research. They’re making 180,000; 200,000 dollars a year. They’re saying, “I want to live the same way, and I’m staying in New York City. I’m going to spend as much as I did before and see where that takes me.” They’re going to, obviously, be concerned because they know that if COVID happens again or something like that happens again, they are in trouble.


Another approach would be the world has changed, and let me live more humbly. Let me maybe not buy a new car or a car at all if I’m in the city, a smaller home. Or maybe I’ll move. This is something that they mentioned in the Bloomberg study. Many people are choosing to leave the city. Part of the reason they’re moving to Texas, A, because taxes are lower. B, because your dollar goes a lot further there in terms of the home you can afford and even the restaurants that you can go to.


So they have, in a sense, learned a lesson and said, “We’re not making two million dollars. We’re making $200,000.” A lot of money can go a lot further elsewhere. Maybe we can even put more money aside. Even if disaster strikes again, financial disaster strikes again, we don’t need to worry for a year or two because we have enough stashed away. So these are two very different approaches.


By the way, which one we take also depends on our personality. Are we more risk-averse? Are we more thrill seekers? So it depends on so many – is it possible for me to move to Texas or somewhere in Florida or somewhere in New York, where I may not be in the city, but life is cheaper.


[00:07:57] PF: And it’s accessible. You can get to the city. I think that’s something too. You can find an area where you can access the things that you like about where you live but aren’t paying the kind of rents or mortgages that you would pay in a city.


[00:08:11] TBS: Yes. You know, I’m speaking here from personal experience. So we moved. Actually, just before COVID, we lived in Brooklyn, and we moved out of the city into New Jersey. We did it because we wanted quieter lifestyle, of course, but also for financial reasons. Not that taxes are not high in New Jersey. They’re extremely high. But certainly, when it comes to accommodation, your dollar goes much, much farther when you’re in the suburb.


Of course, it is important to look at the big picture, to look at it wholistically, W-H, and to understand that there are individual differences. There are people who need the hustle and bustle and the speed of the city. There are people who would feel a lot more comfortable living by a quiet lake, where you hear the water and the birds when you wake up in the morning. Different personalities, it has to do with introversion and extroversion.


It also has to do with how you’ve been raised and what you’re used to or where you’ve spent the past 10 years. Because in a way, for good and ill, we become addicted to whatever it is that we’re exposed to. Again, addiction can obviously be a bad thing. But if I’m addicted to the quiet and suns, or I’m addicted to going to the gym three, four times a week, that’s not a bad thing. All it means is that we have neural pathways that have been reinforced over time.


But there is something else that I want to say here. It’s not just what I desire to do or want to do at the moment. We can also bring about change, specifically .We have become as a society addicted to noise, to novelty, to excitement, to the sensational. That is why we keep on checking our messages online because we’re looking for something new and sensational. It’s also why we get bored very quickly when we’re sitting in our room and doing nothing or ostensibly doing nothing. You find more and more kids today saying to their parents, “I’m bored.”


[00:10:21] PF: Ow.


[00:10:23] TBS: You’re right. More and more adults maybe not saying it but feeling it and then immediately filling up that void that is responsible for their boredom with something. Blaise Pascal once said that, “All of our troubles will be solved if we can find peace in solitude, in the solitude of our own room.” There is some truth to that, and the thing is that we can train ourselves to be less of sensation seekers and more at peace, quite literally at peace with ourselves, at peace with the absence of noise, with the absence of distractions.


That would be very healthy, and one way to do that is, of course, through practicing meditation or by practicing being bored, by practicing doing nothing. We can actually get used to it. There are many upsides to silence, to solitude, to slowing down.


[00:11:24] PF: Yes. It does. It absolutely changes your state. As you talked about, we’re a very distracted society. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of things going on. How is that playing into the way people perceive their finances and the economic environment around them? What role is that playing, and how then do they step away from that?


[00:11:46] TBS: Yes. So in 1954, a leading psychologist by the name of Leon Festinger coined the term social comparison. Again, in hindsight, it seems obvious. Maybe it was also obvious in the 1950s. But we compare ourselves, and we constantly do it. It’s part of our nature to do that. It’s not good or bad. It’s like the law of gravity. It’s a fact of nature.


The question, though, is what do we do with social comparison, and how do we direct this need to compare ourselves? Do we, for example, compare ourselves to others, and that may drive us to do better and to improve and to learn from what other people are doing? Or do we become obsessed with what others have and can never be satisfied or happy because we don’t have what they have?


Right now, because of over stimulation, too much comparison, we, and I say we generalized, of course, not everyone. But in general, we have become, again, addicted and dependent on being better than, having more than. This plays out in terms of the statistics that we’re seeing now. Yes, 180,000 is not a lot really when you compare it to someone who’s making 1.8 million dollars. It’s nothing, and there are many people who make that.


There are also many people who have billions of dollars, and we’re exposed to all of them day in and day out through the media, through social media, or through the newspapers that writes about the very wealthy celebrities. Suddenly, what I do, oh, wow, or what I make is so little. Whereas in the past, let’s say when you lived in your village, first of all, there was less discrepancy about what people made. But even the wealthy ones, first of all, they were not in my face all the time. The news isn’t in my face.


[00:13:39] PF: They weren’t on TikTok showing their latest acquisition, right?


[00:13:42] TBS: Exactly, exactly. Also, there were many others that I compared myself to. Again, this is something natural. Who had as much or less than I did, so I felt okay when it came to social comparison. Also, you think about advertising. Advertising has one goal, to sell. Now, how does it get you to sell? It takes this tendency towards social comparison and exploits it. Oh, you don’t have this new car yet. That means you can’t be really happy because look at how happy those beautiful people driving that car are. Then you get that car, but there are always new ads coming on and luring. The sirens are calling you to get the next thing.


Then we experience what Nathaniel Branden, the psychologist, called the nothing is enough syndrome. Nothing is enough materially. Because mind and body are connected, nothing is enough psychologically.


[00:14:43] PF: Now, what does that do to our happiness when we are focused on what – our lack, the fact that we don’t have enough money, even if that’s just a perception? How is that undermining our well-being?


[00:14:56] TBS: In the exact same way that objectively not having enough for our livelihood would influence our happiness. Because people who don’t have the basic needs, of course, that’s going to affect their impact. Poverty influences people’s happiness. If I know that or if I don’t know rather how I will get food on my table, for myself, for my family tomorrow, that I’m going to be concerned. I’m not going to sleep. Well, I’m going to be unhappy, obviously.


In the same way, people who actually have enough objectively, even if they have enough for the next year to live off, but their perception is the perception of lack. Their happiness is going to be influenced just the same. Why? Because happiness depends much more on our state of mind than the state of our bank account. Again, with a caveat here, I’m not talking about extremes. Extreme actual poverty will lead to unhappiness. For those who are experiencing it or for us, we have a responsibility to alleviate that condition. That goes without saying.


[00:16:03] PF: So what do people focus on? Here’s where the professor really comes out. So what are the steps that people can take? How do they change their relationship with their perception of what is enough, and what do they focus on instead to start making a shift?


[00:16:21] TBS: Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, who’s really the father of cognitive psychology, says that one of the things that we can do is imagine ourselves without the things that we have. We’re so focused on what we don’t have. Let’s think about what we have and imagine ourselves without it. So I have food on my table. Imagine if I didn’t have that food. Well, that will make me more appreciative of the food that I do have. Or I do drive a car. Yes, I don’t drive the latest model and fastest one. But it takes me from point A to point B, how convenient, how wonderful. Not to mention to become more appreciative of the things that don’t cost money such – whether it’s friends or family or health or nature, the gift that we received from evolution, God. Take your pick.


[00:17:16] PF: So what are ways that people can start creating some sort of practice? Because we’re not going to just inherently say, “Okay, those were great tips. I’m going to start doing that,” and everything changes. It gets tough because we are going to slide back in, and we are going to see that friend on TikTok who has a Lamborghini, and we’re going to be like, “Come on.” So what are some practices that we can use every day to make this part of our insight?


[00:17:43] TBS: I’m going to talk about some of the usual suspects here because I don’t think it’s rocket science. The challenge is not understanding or knowing what we should do. The challenge is to do it and to do it consistently. I will say a few words about that in a minute. But first of all, what are the things?


First of all, regularly express gratitude. The key with expressing gratitude is not just, okay, so I’m sitting down now the end of the day and counting my blessings, writing down what I’m grateful for. We need to do it with what Barbara Frederickson, the psychologist, calls heartfelt positivity. So this is a practice that I’ve been doing since the 19th of September, 1999. I do day in and day out. The key, especially when you’ve done it often, is to really feel experience and savor what it is that you’re grateful for. So if I write down my daughter. It’s not just writing down my daughter or her name. It’s writing it down, and then I shut my eyes, and I imagine her. I see her in my mind’s eye and feel the love.


[00:18:48] PF: I love that.


[00:18:50] TBS: There are so many reasons why this works so much better than just going through the motion. Or let’s say if I write a meal that I had with a colleague, which was lovely. I actually closed my eyes and transport myself back to that experience, re-experience it. It’s when we experience this heartfelt positivity as opposed to just cognitive positivity that makes a big difference in terms of the impact that it has on us. So this is one practice.


The second practice, going back to sensationalism. I’m taking it from the work of Osho, who was a spiritual teacher, but also from the latest research on meditation. We can shift away from the need for sensationalism if we become more mindful of sensations. So if I sit down and focus on the air coming in through my nose and leaving through my nose and this tingling, whether it’s in my nostrils or my fingertips, if I focus on that, there’s so much happening there. If I learn to focus on it, I become more sensitive. When I become more sensitive, I’m more aware of sensations and therefore less dependent on sensationalism, which is sensations taken to the extreme.


Again, this is not just then etymological word play. This actually works, but we need to put time aside for that by living any city. I’m outside, being constantly bombarded by these distractions which is noise, colors. Plus, I have my smartphone with me all the time that is providing me notifications or messages. I become addicted to those. Just like the antidote for taking things for granted is gratitude, the antidote to sensationalism is learning to focus on and become aware of, mindful of sensations.


[00:21:03] PF: That’s incredible. I love that. I know that we do have to let you go, but I really want you to put in perspective for us how imperative is it that we get our mindset about money in line for our overall well-being? Like where does that fall in importance?


[00:21:21] TBS: We have within us, again, whether it’s the creator put it in us or evolution put it in us, the need to accumulate. It’s understandable because in the past, humans really didn’t know whether they would survive the next winter. Or they only survived it if they accumulated. Unfortunately, for many people, this is still the reality. So this is, again, part of our nature; good, bad, both, neither. The question is what do we do with that. Do we take it to the extreme? Then that means even people who are making, objectively speaking, a lot of money still feel that nothing is enough. Or do we write about it, think about it, talk about it, find a more rational evaluation of what we have? So that’s the first thing.


The second thing, how about living a little bit more humbly? Because really, as we know from a lot of research and, Paula, you’ve talked about this multiple times before, yes, when we get this new thing, bigger, better, brighter thing, we’ll be happy for a week or a month. That’s not the path to lasting happiness. So let’s be more humble about our acquisitions. Let’s be more humble about what we really need. Spend more of our money and more importantly our time on cultivating those things that are free and yet so important, so fundamental for our happiness.


Because spending time with my daughter or spending time going for a walk, playing with my pet, or reading a book, these are wonderful sources of what I’ve come to call life’s ultimate currency, which is not dollars and cents. It’s happiness.


[00:23:18] PF: I love that. Thank you so much for your insight today. This is an important topic because it affects all of us. We all have our own mindsets about it. So I really appreciate you breaking it down for us and telling us how we can shift the direction we’re going. We’re going to tell our listeners how they can find you online and learn more about you.


[00:23:37] TBS: Thank you very much, Paula. Again, thank you so much for all that you and your team are doing.




[00:23:47] PF: That was Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, talking about money and happiness. If you’d like to learn more about Tal and the Happiness Studies Academy or follow him on social media, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.


That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day happy one.



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